Steve Martin in…Homage To Steve!

My Steve Martin ‘thing’ probably peaked around 1989. I had just found his ‘Live!’ video (bought on the same day as The Blue Nile’s Hats, if memory serves) and loved his Wild And Crazy Guy LP, ‘borrowed’ from a family friend.

‘Live!’ was taken from a September 1978 gig at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles (supported on the night by The Blues Brothers), when Steve was about as big as a comedian can get. He was even on the cover of People magazine (or ‘Screw Up Your Life’ magazine, as he called it).

Back then, if there’d been anything like the marketing machine of today, he could have retired on the sales of Steve Martin bunny ears, Lucky Astrology Mood Watches or arrows-through-the-head alone.

So how did he do it? Or should that be why? As the cliché goes, maybe America was ready for stupid jokes after Vietnam and Watergate. Someone once said that Steve brought surrealism to the masses. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that movies like ‘Airplane’ wouldn’t have happened without him. But he had a philosophical, post-modern approach too, often starting out with the punchline and then working backwards – or never supplying one at all.

And he was a pretty damn decent magician, musician and juggler too.

And of course he was basically ‘in character’ on stage, an uptight, arrogant white guy in a white suit (remind you of anyone? Stop Making Sense indeed, though apparently the suit idea came from one-time roommate Martin Mull…). During the ‘with-it’, drug-fuelled 1970s, Steve was desperately trying (and failing) to ‘get down’, to be hip, cool and one step ahead of the audience. But the character generally failed, becoming grouchy and out of his depth, hence the famous ‘Excuuuuuuse…meeeeee!’ catchphrase.

Steve was also a Philosophy Major (I can’t say for sure if it influenced my choice to study the subject at university, but with hindsight maybe it did…) and his reminiscences of ‘the intellectual thing’ used to make me laugh a lot. ‘I studied the ethical questions: Is it OK to yell “Movie!” in a crowded fire house? The religious questions: Does the pope sh*t in the woods?’

Then there were the albums – his friend and movie producer Bill McEuen had been recording gigs since the mid-’70s. By ’76, Warner Bros were sniffing around. Again, it’s easy to forget how far ahead of his time Martin was here – stand-up comedy albums were extremely rare at the time, and he didn’t just enjoy some success but smashed it out of the park: Let’s Get Small, A Wild & Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty all went either gold or platinum (and were almost impossible to find in the UK until fairly recently – I had to buy them at the much-lamented J&R Music World during a trip to New York in the mid-1990s).

By 1981’s The Steve Martin Brothers album, the game was up – it was his worst and lowest-selling record. Steve got out of stand-up and into movies. Again, he was way ahead of the curve and extremely influential – you could make a good case for the ’80s scene being wholly driven by comedian-turned-actors: Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, John Candy, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Levinson, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd etc etc.

Since then, Steve has ploughed his own path, writing books, playing the banjo, getting into ‘serious’ acting with some aplomb (‘Grand Canyon’, ‘The Spanish Prisoner’). Some people will never forgive him. Dennis Pennis spoke for many when he zapped Steve with this cruel zinger in the late 1990s:

But hey, that’s my homage to Steve. And if there weren’t enough jokes for you… Excuuuuuse…meeee!

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The Cult Movie Club: Modern Romance (1981)

It might seem a bit churlish to say about a guy who’s co-written/directed seven movies and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (for ‘Broadcast News’) that it never quite happened for Albert Brooks the way it did for some of his contemporaries.

But somehow he has always seemed too niche for widespread popularity. His always-intelligent, nervy schtick is like a West Coast version of Woody Allen’s, but his comic bedfellows are probably Garry Shandling and Larry David rather than Allen and Diane Keaton.

‘Modern Romance’ was Brooks’ superb second film as co-writer/director, and it’s kind of an extended, darker episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. I caught it completely by chance on Channel Four in the mid-’90s and am grateful I captured it on VHS because it seems almost impossible to find these days.

Watching it again, the movie it most reminded me of is ‘Groundhog Day’. Brooks plays Robert Cole, an amiable if somewhat self-serving film editor stuck in a kind of romantic ‘loop’, endlessly playing out his on/off relationship with talented, gorgeous but hard-to-know Mary, portrayed by the excellent Kathryn Harrold.

Kathryn Harrold and Albert Brooks in ‘Modern Romance’

So Robert dumps Mary (yet again) at the beginning of the movie and tries (yet again?) to embrace the new romantic ‘rules’ of the Me Decade, taking up jogging, health supplements and blind dates. But nothing works. He just can’t seem to get comfortable. Why? Is he really meant to be with Mary? Or is it that he just can’t assuage his loneliness and modern ennui? The movie explores the options with amusing, thought-provoking results.

‘Modern Romance’ is full of great secondary characters: Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein (best known as Marty Funkhouser in ‘Curb’) plays a pushy shop assistant, Bruno Kirby is his loyal co-editor, George Kennedy of ‘Naked Gun’ fame is a self-important B-movie actor and there’s a droll, jittery turn by James L Brooks as a suspiciously George Lucas-like director.

James L Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby

Modern Romance’ also makes for a pithy Hollywood pastiche. Robert’s day job consists of editing a cheapo ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, pitting him against bored techies, unpredictable directors and egotistical character actors. The irony, of course, is that we know Robert is capable of much more, but he seems to have some kind of tragic flaw. He’s an ’80s version of Bobby Dupea, Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘Five Easy Pieces’.

The other thing about ‘Modern Romance’ is that it’s very quiet. Compared to modern comedies, it’s positively moribund. Brooks spends a lot of time alone, talking to himself. He makes stoned phone calls, goes jogging, drives around drab, deserted LA locations (but of course they look pretty glamorous to me, very Sanborn’s Hideaway and Steely’s ‘Glamour Profession’). There’s very little incidental music but there is a funny segue of heartbreak songs heard on a car radio.

It works as a quirky, neurotic, droll comedy, but ‘Modern Romance’ also lingers in the brain, revealing far more serious concepts. Why can’t Robert leave Mary alone and get on with his life? Or, as the trailer tagline so aptly puts it: if this is not love, what is it?